Best Escapes to Alaska: 10 Ways to Go By Rail, Sea and Land

Cruise past a glacier, cycle on the Gold Rush trail or hike into the wilderness with bear spray in your pack. There's more than one way to explore Alaska, the Last Frontier.

July 18, 2019

Photo By: Derek Reeves/Gray Line Alaska Rail

Photo By: Kent Miller/Denali National Park and Preserve

Photo By: Portage Glacier Cruise

Photo By: White Pass & Yukon Route

Photo By: REI Adventures

Photo By: Jeanne L Baker

Photo By: REI Adventures/Andrew Kronen

Photo By: Savannah Evans

Photo By: Alaska Railroad/Glenn Aronwits

Photo By: White Pass & Yukon Route

See the Sights by Bus, Train, Motorcoach or Car

You’ll see more scenery and wildlife when someone else does the driving. Gray Line Alaska offers escorted tours via motorcoach, train or bus. If you prefer, Gray Line will arrange a rental car and give you a suggested itinerary for a self-drive tour. (Just keep your eyes on the road.) Optional excursions are available along the way, so you can book an authentic sternwheeler trip or other adventure. Princess Cruises partners with Gray Line Alaska and some packages include stays at their Princess Wilderness Lodges.

Catch a Bus to Denali

Explore Denali National Park and Preserve on a narrated or non-narrated bus tour. The road, at 92 miles long, is the only one in the park, and winds through valleys and high mountain passes. You can drive the first 15 miles in your own vehicle in good weather (usually late May to early September). Free buses operate along that route, too, to shuttle you between trails, campgrounds and various facilities. Catch the non-narrated bus, and you can get off to hike or camp and reboard at any time, anywhere along the way.

Cruise on Portage Lake

Go on, munch on the ice chips your guide gives you from Portage Glacier. It's been around since the Ice Age, but the chips taste fine. A small Portage Glacier Cruise ship sails within 300 yards of this ancient relic, which created a lake as it melted. If you're lucky, you'll see the glacier, Alaska's second most-visited attraction, calve into the water while you're there. This hour-long cruise is part of a day trip to and from Anchorage and includes a visit to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Ask to feed the bull moose while you're there.

Ride a Steam Train

Built in 1898, in the Klondike Gold Rush days, the White Pass & Yukon Route carries passengers from Skagway, Alaska to Canada’s Yukon Territory. Take the Fraser Meadows Steam Excursion, which returns to service this July, and chug along iron rails that climb 3,000 feet along 26 miles of steep grades and breathtaking turns. If you arrive in Alaska via cruise ship, book ahead to board this historic engine, "The Pride of the White Pass Fleet," from the pier.

Cycle the Gold Rush Trail

Follow Alaska's gold rush trail on an REI Alaska Golden Circle Cycling Tour that debuts in August 2019. Bikers ride through a UNESCO World Heritage Site into three parks, using routes created by Native Americans and the men and women of the Klondike Gold Rush era. The 10-day tour goes from Southeast Alaska into British Columbia and Canada's Yukon Territory, covering 360 miles. Yes, there's time to rest so you can canoe, hike or soak in Takhini Hot Springs in Whitehorse.

Take the Rails to the Northern Lights

People come from all over the world to look for the spectacular Northern Lights in Fairbanks. The best time to visit is from mid-September to late April or even mid-May. Alaska Railroad's Aurora Winter Train runs from Anchorage to Fairbanks, where you can book a van excursion with Northern Alaska Tour Company or 1st Alaska Tours to boost your chances of spotting the sometimes elusive, always amazing Aurora Borealis.

Paddleboard With Puffins in Glacier Bay

It's true: Glacier Bay National Park is a treasured gem in America's national park system. REI's Northern Passage & Glacier Bay Excursion lets you explore the Inside Passage and spend a day in the park. While your ship anchors in a cove, you can paddleboard, kayak, launch a skiff, beach comb in the intertidal zone or hike in the thick, mossy forest. Look for puffins, bears, whales and sea lions. This eight-day, small group tour, rated as easy, departs from Juneau or Sitka.

Dog Sled Without Snow

No, you don’t need snow to go dog-sledding. Teams of huskies are eager to pull wheeled carts even in the summer. Many sledding trips leave from Anchorage, Denali, Juneau, Girdwood and Fairbanks. Look for a tour that includes a visit to the kennels and even a chance to snuggle with a pup in training. If a ride without ice doesn’t work for you, take a helicopter sightseeing tour and land at a sledding camp on a glacier. You’ll get a thrilling ride, and you might get to drive the team.

View the Great Outdoors

No more hanging onto the platform between moving train cars to look for moose and bears. Board one of the Alaska Railroad’s luxurious GoldStar Dome cars instead for a 360-degree view. These two-level cars have an outdoor viewing platform on the upper levels, and according to the Railroad, it’s the only one of its kind in the world. The dome cars run on the Denali Star route, with stops at Talkeetna, Denali National Park and other points, and on the Coastal Classic route between Anchorage and Seward.

Take a Train and Take a Hike

Boots on the ground. That's one of the best ways to see Alaska. The White Pass and Yukon Route offers a 14-mile trip on a narrow-gauge railway from Skagway to Laughton. Passengers can then disembark for a five to eight-mile hike through an old-growth forest and climb a moraine to see a glacier. This is a real wilderness hike over rough terrain, where temperatures can fluctuate from 55 to 75 degrees F. To reserve an overnight stay in a U.S. Forest Service cabin, visit Recreation.gov. You can climb back on board the train the following day for your return trip.

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